Friday, February 11, 2011

My Feminist Upbringing

 As salaam alaikum,

Me, wearing my favorite color (lavender) on my fourth birthday (1989). Lavender was my favorite color because it was my grandmother's favorite color. I never considered myself to have an actual, intrinsic favorite color.

When I was a little girl, my mother admits that I was girlier than she ever was. I didn't feel like I was that girlie. This little girl, K, who I remember from preschool, she admitted to wearing dresses every day. I thought that was silly and unnecessary. However, dresses were definitely indicated for birthdays. I loved dresses, wearing my hair down, playing with Cabbage Patch and Barbie Dolls, and among my favorite television shows were My Little Pony and Muppet Babies.

So upon reflection, I was probably a more girlie girl than most. At three, I didn't know what it meant to be a woman. I assumed, as an adult, I would be a mother, and I would be married to the father. When asked if I wanted to drive a car when I grew up, I said that, "The Daddy would drive."

And my parents nurtured my interests and hobbies. My mother, tired from her day at work, as she was still working full-time as a clinical social worker, would come home from work and tiredly played "Bahbies," with me, holding the "Daddy" doll while the "Mommy" doll invariably found herself in peril and called to her husband for help. Every birthday, I'd get a new doll, doll clothes for my cabbage patch doll, Naomi, or a RV for my Barbie family. In preschool, I was enrolled in both gymnastics and ballet, excited to wear the pink tutu and having aspirations to wear the purple tutu that the kindergarten girls wore.

And my parents did not discourage me when I announced what I wanted to be when I grew up: a ballerina (of course)...and a pediatrician.

My inspiration? My primary care pediatrician, Dr. R, who I remembered fondly for listening to my chest and giving me suckers at the end of appointments.

Fast-forward through my childhood, as my mother went from part-time to leaving her work entirely to be a stay-at-home mother after my brother's diagnosis with autism. I went from wanting to be a pediatrician and a ballerina to wanting to be an actress by the age of 8 to wanting to be either an obstetrician or an architect by age 12. By the time I was 15, I was still between being a physician and an architect, not yet convinced that I would write on the side, not yet convinced I would become fluent in Spanish. It was time to take drivers ed, and like every other 15 year old, that was my biggest priority.

My parents would tease me that, when I was three, I had informed them that the Daddy was going to drive. I probably scoffed and reminded them that I also declared that I was going to get my own apartment at the age of three so that I could have my own Christmas Tree.

My parents pretty much let me express myself as I pleased as a child, save for the limits of good child discipline. While I loved playing with my Barbies and named them and my stuffed animals, I also loved building houses with my Legos. I liked setting up the train on the train set they bought my brother and I one year. In kindergarten, I would play house with the girls, sometimes being the ignored grandmother so I could play some matriarchal role, while building constructing a mansion with my wooden building blocks when coming home. In elementary school, I learned all of the hand-clap games of childhood and collected rocks with the first grade girls who looked up for me for some reason when I was in the second grade.

Meanwhile, my parents made sure to enrich my talents at home, my father teaching me math so I could go ahead in the math book in class, my mother encouraging me to write stories, something that I loved doing since I was four years old, as I narrated and she transcribed stories about PJ Sparkles and her magic powers.

All of that culminated in me becoming the girl that I was at 16, smiling widely in my drivers' license that I obtained the day before school so I could drive myself to school with style in the 1985 Camry, the car I was driven in as a baby. That year, I would decide to apply to a liberal arts college with plans to be a premedical student, possibly considering a dual MD/PhD. I had not dated to this point and I had no plans of dating while in high school, as I would focus on my education and career development. My relatives didn't even have to persuade me as they thought.

And then I think back to things I used to complain about in my upbringing. My father at one time was hesitant towards me driving at a young age. He said he'd feel more comfortable with me driving if I were a boy and not a girl. At 16 and 17 and indignant at what my father said, I tried to emotionally sever myself from my parents and the way they did things. My mother never drove the car if my father was in the car...he insisted on driving. He liked to come home and have his food prepared for him, even after my mother went back to work part time as a parent advocate for families of children with special needs at the intermediate school district. I didn't like that. I rejected that. I couldn't wait until college, when I would be out from under the authority of my parents and free to be me...

...but it took me maybe this long to realize that I was always free. While I certainly developed early on ideas about gender roles while observing my parents (i.e. the Daddy will drive), never through my childhood did I feel that there was any career that was inaccessible because I was a girl, and I didn't limit myself as such. My mother stayed at home for much of my childhood, but neither of my parents did anything to indicate that this was the way to be. It was only as I grew to be a woman that I began to think about what type of role I'd want in family life, with a husband and children.

For my father, I could be anything. He actually preferred that I become an engineer. My mother encouraged my strengths and ultimately was more interested in my emotional well-being than the focus on my academic achievement from my father. Although I'm sure they weren't thinking of issues of gender when they were raising me (at least, not in the way that I do), they did a great job in balancing my interest in dolls and math, in biology and cooking without coercing me into a specific way of being.

And I think that's why I am who I am now, comfortable in my skin and the role I've chosen for myself in this world, as a future physician, public health practitioner, wife and mother, insha'Allah.

And if my future daughter shuns Barbies for insects and amphibians, I'll be right there with her, helping her maintain her collection.

And I won't tell my son that boys don't cry.

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